Guilty Until Proven Innocent: Wrongful Convictions in Illinois
updated on April 7, 2020
For the second consecutive year, Illinois had the highest number of wrongful convictions vacated than any other state in the nation (The National Registry). In 2018, of the 167 exonerations in America, 53 came from Illinois (The National Registry). This is roughly 32% of all exonerations in 2018. In 2019, out of the 143 exonerations nationwide, 30 originated from Illinois ("Annual Report"). This is twice the number of exonerations than any other state in 2019 ("Annual Report"). These statistics were recorded by the National Registry of Exonerations, which is a project of the Newkirk Center for Science & Society at the University of California Irvine, the University of Michigan Law School, and Michigan State University College of Law (The National Registry). Many wrongful convictions are the result of corrupt police planting evidence, police using coercive tactics to elicit false confessions, and prosecutorial misconduct ("Police"). In fact, the Chicago Police Department's violation of the United States Constitution became so egregious that on January 31, 2019, a federal judge approved a court-enforceable consent decree with the City of Chicago, which mandates reform and federal oversight of the Chicago Police Department ("Chicago Police").
Police Planting Evidence
Numerous wrongful convictions are linked to former Chicago police Sergeant Ronald Watts, who along with other officers in his tactical unit, was accused of planting drugs on citizens in the Ida B. Wells underserved projects. Watts' extortion, bribes, and other crimes spanned from the late 1990's to 2012. Kim Wilbourn was one of his victims. On September 6, 2006, Wilbourn visited the Ida B. Wells housing projects to spend some time with family members. As he was walking through the lobby, Watts and another officer detained him, handcuffed him, and searched him. Watts did not find any contraband on Wilbourn but nonetheless proceeded to interrogate him. He asked Wilbourn if he had information on who was selling drugs in the building. Wilbourn responded that he was not a resident and was not aware of drugs being sold in the building. Watts began to viscously strike Wilbourn in the head with a closed fist while demanding answers to his questions. Watts pressed Wilbourn about his brother, Vondell Wilbourn. Watts had previously charged Vondell with drug possession in two separate incidents. Vondell had always maintained his innocence even though he entered a guilty plea in both cases and was sentenced to 5 1/2 years in prison. Watts persisted to aggressively question Kim about Vondell and other individuals. After Kim again explained that he knew nothing, Watts gave him an ultimatum: If Kim did not produce information, drugs, or guns—he would be arrested. Once again, Kim proclaimed he had no information. Watts responded by pulling out a sack with 25 individual baggies inside. He told Kim he was in possession of the drugs and placed him under arrest. Although Kim told everyone at the police station that Watts had planted drugs on him, his cries of innocence were utterly disregarded. On October 17, 2006, Kim entered a guilty plea to possession of a controlled substance in Cook County Circuit Court. He was given a two-year prison sentence. Kim was freed from custody on March 5, 2007. On February 11, 2009, Kim's conviction was overturned, and he was later given a certificate of innocence (Possley, "Kim Wilbourn").
Kim Wilbourn is not alone in having his conviction at the corrupt hands of Watts vacated. According to the Exoneration Project, which is a pro bono clinic that petitions courts to overturn wrongful convictions, cases involving Watts and his team of officers have led to at least 75 people's charges being dropped and 95 people's convictions being vacated since 2016 ("12 More Men"). Watts and his officers played roles in a minimum of 500 convictions ("12 More Men"). In 2012, Watts pled guilty to stealing money from an FBI informant who was posing as a homeless drug dealer ("12 More Men"). He confessed to regularly stealing money from drug dealers and ultimately received a 22-month federal prison sentence ("12 More Men"). Prosecutors alleged that Watts and his cohort of officers regularly planted drugs on innocent people and falsely arrested them to advance their own firearms and narcotics trafficking ("12 More Men"). Although Watts was not found to have abused arrested citizens to induce false confessions, many officers have engaged in such deplorable behavior.
False Confessions From Police Torture
False confessions are a problem in Illinois. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, out of the 318 documented false confessions in America from January 1989-April 2020, over 30% arise from Illinois (The National Registry). Roughly 26% originate from Cook County (The National Registry). Many false confessions are attributed to disgraced former Chicago police Detective and Commander Jon Burge (Baker). From 1972-1991, Burge oversaw the torture of a minimum of 118 citizens of Chicago (Baker). Burge and his officers referred to themselves as "The Midnight Crew," "Burge's Ass Kickers," and the "A-Team" (Baker). They beat detainees, suffocated them, subjected them to mock executions with firearms, raped them with sex toys, used electroshock devices to shock their genitals, gums, fingers, and earlobes in an effort to extract false confessions (Baker). Burge and his rogue police squad were mainly white men (Baker). Their targets were black men from the South and West Sides of Chicago (Baker). The officers sadistically nicknamed the electroshock devices they used to torture their victims, "nigger boxes" (Baker). Anthony Holmes described the torture he suffered under Burge and his torture crew:
[Burge] put some handcuffs on my ankles, then he took one wire and put it on my ankles, he took the other wire and put it behind my back, on the handcuffs behind my back. Then after that, when he—then he went and got a plastic bag, put it over my head ... so I bit through it. So he went and got another bag and put it on my head and he twisted it. When he twisted it, it cut my air off and I started shaking. ... So then he hit me with the voltage. When he hit me with the voltage, that's when I started gritting, crying, hollering … It feel [sic] like a thousand needles going through my body. And then after that, it just feel [sic] like, you know—it feel [sic] like something just burning me from the inside, and, um, I shook, I gritted, I hollered, then I passed out. (Berlatsky)
More than a dozen convictions attributed to Jon Burge's torture unit were vacated ("Judge Denies"). In fact, in 2003, Governor George Ryan pardoned 4 death row inmates who accused Burge and his officers of torturing them into giving false confessions (Roberts). Governor Ryan also commuted the death sentences of 167 people on death row and implemented a moratorium on the death penalty (Roberts). In 2011, Illinois abolished the death penalty altogether (Roberts). In 2016, Chicago paid settlements of $5.5 million to 57 torture victims who spent more than 20 years in prison based on their false confessions at the hands of Burge and his torture team (Roberts). Altogether, the City of Chicago, Cook County, and Illinois paid a total of $141, 466, 366 to Burge's torture victims ("Judge Denies"). Although Burge was fired in 1993 (he continued to collect his monthly $4,000 police pension until his death in 2018), abusive tactics by Chicago police to extract confessions from innocent suspects continued (Roberts).
"Marquette Park Four"
In 1995, when he was 16 years old, Chicago police stopped by Larod Styles' house (Davis). A double murder had occurred nearby, and one of the suspects implicated Styles (Davis). Detectives took Styles to a police station, handcuffed him to a wall, and interrogated for hours on end (Davis). Styles initially denied involvement in the crime (Davis). Detective James Cassidy and other detectives proceeded to yell at him, threaten him with life imprisonment, and tell him he would never see his loved ones again unless he signed some documents—and only then would he be allowed to return home to his grandmother (Davis). Finally, at 1:00 am, after being interrogated for 8 hours, Styles broke and confessed to a story he says was fed to him by detectives: He was involved in the double murder, which was a robbery gone wrong (Davis). After coercing Styles into signing a confession, detectives told him, "You just signed your life away" (Davis). On January 15, 1998, Styles was convicted of robbery and first-degree murder based on his false confession even though there was no physical evidence linking him to the murders (Possley, "Larod Styles"). He received a life sentence without the possibility of parole (Possley, "Larod Styles"). Three other teenagers were also convicted of the murders: Troshawn McCoy, LaShawn Ezell, and Charles Johnson (Possley, "Larod Styles"). They all claimed their confessions were coerced as well (Possley, "Larod Styles"). The four teenagers were named after the Chicago area where the crimes took place (Davis). They were dubbed the “Marquette Park Four” (Davis).
In 2008, after serving 10 years in prison and losing his appeals, Charles Johnson sent a letter to Steve Drizin of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law (Davis; Voght). Johnson detailed his account of Detective James Cassidy coercing him into falsely confessing to the murders (Voght). Drizin received numerous letters that mirrored each other from many inmates in the state claiming Cassidy coerced them into false confessions as well (Voght). According to Drizin, Cassidy routinely used illegal psychological interrogation tactics on young individuals to elicit false confessions: "Most of these young people thought they were going home after signing confessions (Voght). [Cassidy] has been involved in numerous false confessions that have cost men, women, and children hundreds of years of their lives in prison" (Baichwal). In 2009, a judge ordered fingerprints be retested from evidence in the case (Possley, "Larod Styles"). The fingerprints did not match any member of the Marquette Park Four and instead came back to four other individuals who had gang affiliations and criminal convictions (Possley, "Larod Styles"). Detectives also discovered that a convicted drug peddler had threatened to kill the two victims a day before the murders (Possley, "Larod Styles").
Astonishingly, 13 years earlier in August 1996, Assistant State's Attorney Brian Sexton had the very same fingerprints in the case tested (Possely, "Larod Styles"). At the time, the results indicated the fingerprints did not belong to Styles, Johnson, McCoy, or Ezell (Possley, "Larod Styles"). Sexton incredulously never disclosed this information or the existence of the fingerprints to any of the defendants' attorneys even though he was aware of the exculpatory evidence 1 1/2 years before Styles' and Johnson's trials and more than 2 years before McCoy's and Ezell's trials (Possley, "Larod Styles"). On February 15, 2017, 19 years after their wrongful convictions, Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx dismissed all charges against the defendants because the reinvestigated evidence was insufficient for a conviction (Baichwal; Davis; Voght). The Marquette Park Four were subsequently given certificates of innocence by a judge (Davis). During this period, police abuse of citizens became so pervasive in Chicago that the Justice Department had already announced the findings of its investigation into the Chicago Police Department.
Federal Oversight of Chicago Police Department
In November 2015, a videotape was released showing former Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke emptying his 9mm clip of 16 bullets in a span of 14-15 seconds into the lifeless body of 17-year old black teenager Laquan McDonald ("Laquan McDonald"). Van Dyke had 20 previously filed citizen complaints on him (he was never disciplined for any of them): 10 for excessive use of force, including two with the use of a gun and one for using a racial slur (Castillejo). A black Chicago man was awarded $350,000 after a federal jury found Van Dyke used excessive force on him during a July 9, 2007, traffic stop (McLaughlin). The videotape of Laquan McDonald's murder at the hands of Van Dyke caused protests and unrest in Chicago, which prompted Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan to ask the Justice Department to investigate the Chicago Police Department's (CPD) violation of the United States Constitution and federal civil rights law ("Chicago Police"). On December 7, 2015, United States Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch launched an investigation into the CPD's use of force against racial and ethnic minorities as well as into its procedures for accountability ("Chicago Police"). As part of the investigation, the department spoke with city leaders, past and current police officials, and many officers of different ranks throughout the CPD ("Justice Department"). Investigators from the Justice Department rode along with CPD officers in their patrol cars in every police district more than 60 times; spoke with over 1,000 residents and more than 90 local organizations; analyzed over 1,000 pages of police documents, including documents related to training, policies, and procedures; reviewed use of force reports from January 2011-April 2016, including reports concerning over 170 police shootings and over 400 use of force incidents ("Justice Department").
On January 13, 2017, the Justice Department found reasonable cause that the CPD exhibited a pattern of using force and deadly force in a manner that violated the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution. The systematic behavior stemmed from a continuous lack of training, supervision, and accountability, including the lack of training in deescalation and not properly investigating, disciplining, or reporting use of force complaints. Additionally, the department made it clear that racially bias police behavior was pervasive throughout the CPD. This racist behavior was tolerated in the CPD and in some ways caused by weaknesses in the CPD's procedures for training, overseeing, and holding police officers accountable. The department went on to state that black and Latino communities were most heavily impacted by the CPD's pattern of unreasonable use of force. In order to reform the CPD, the Justice Department recommended the City of Chicago sign a consent decree, which is a federal court-enforceable plan establishing reform and federal oversight ("Justice Department").
In Spring 2017, United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the Justice Department under the Trump administration would not intervene in local and state police matters ("Chicago Police"). The Justice Department refused to enter into a consent decree with the City of Chicago to reform the CPD ("Chicago Police"). In August 2017, Illinois Attorney General Madigan sued the City of Chicago to obtain a consent decree that would implement the recommendations of the Justice Department ("Chicago Police"). The Illinois Attorney General's Office and the City of Chicago came together and agreed that a consent decree was necessary to reform the CPD and rebuild the trust of the citizens of Chicago ("Chicago Police"). Under the guidance of Judge Robert M. Dow Jr. and Independent Federal Monitor Maggie Hickey, the consent decree went into effect on March 1, 2019: It requires the CPD to publicize use of force data every month, it bans police officers from using tasers on fleeing suspects, it requires officers to document each time they pull out their weapons, it changes the procedures for investigating officers, and it mandates the city to strengthen its support for police officer wellness programs ("Chicago Police"; Corley). On November 15, 2019, Federal Monitor Hickey released her first report on the CPD's progress in implementing the reforms of the consent decree: The report stated the CPD had not complied with most of the reforms and had failed to meet 37 of 50 mutually agreed upon deadlines to be in "preliminary compliance" (Schutz and Masterson). Although the City of Chicago is currently under a consent decree, Illinois must take further action to prevent wrongful convictions in Cook County and in other counties throughout the state.
Four Solutions to Prevent Wrongful Convictions
The state of Illinois should specifically focus on Cook County in implementing four critical steps to stem the problem of wrongful convictions: First, the law must mandate all police officers wear body cameras while on duty. Second, public defender police station units across the state need to be created and adequately funded. Third, elected, independent civilian oversight committees of police departments and state's attorney's offices have to be established. Fourth, legislation should be passed to fund reputable organizations that investigate wrongful convictions in Illinois.
I. Body Cameras
Illinois state law must require all police officers to employ body cameras when interacting with members of the public. Police officers found to have not activated their body cameras should be fired immediately. Although some Illinois police departments equip some of their police officers with body cameras, there is still a large percentage of police officers on the streets who are not required to wear them. Body cameras have 3 main benefits that would help reduce wrongful convictions: First, body cameras play a vital role in warding off illegal police conduct and foul play. For example, it would be significantly more difficult for a police officer to plant drugs on an innocent person while a body camera recorded his every action. Body cameras would also make police officers more hesitant to abuse or violate the rights of citizens in order to extract information or false confessions. Second, body cameras would help to identify, discipline, and remove police officers from the streets who abuse their power by abusing citizens. This is true because body cameras offer unbiased, documented evidence on what events transpired during any given period of time, which would expose police officers who violate the rights of citizens. Additionally, body cameras would make it harder for police officers to hide their wrongdoing by fabricating police reports or falsely corroborating each other's stories. Third, body cameras can be utilized as an effective training tool to teach cadets and officers how to properly handle certain situations while respecting the rights of citizens. This can be achieved by showing officers body camera footage of incidents where fellow officers handled situations both properly and lawfully as well as improperly and unlawfully. The implementation of police body cameras would help foster truth and protect the constitutional rights of citizens.
II. Public Defender Police Station Units
The Illinois legislature needs to sufficiently fund statewide public defender programs that enable public defenders to appear at police stations at any time of the day to represent arrestees. When suspects falsely confess to crimes, they confess outside the presence of an attorney. Having an attorney present when a person is arrested and taken to a police station would significantly reduce false confessions. Attorneys at police stations would also prevent police officers from employing coercive tactics to extract false confessions. In fact, in April 2018, Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli launched a public defender police station unit in Cook County, which as of October 2019, has resulted in 100 people being released from police custody with dropped charges (Black; Smith). However, according to Campanelli, the program needs more funding from officials to more effectively serve citizens: "Everybody in Cook County needs a lawyer. It's so good for the criminal system. I've been trying to tell law enforcement, because I speak to law enforcement about the unit, how much credibility it brings to the entire court system when a lawyer is there at the police station" (Smith). Unfortunately, despite the obvious need for a large, robust public defender police station unit in Cook County, the Cook County Public Defender Police Station Unit continues to lack the funds needed to adequately protect the rights of all indigent citizens arrested in Cook County. In addition, other counties in Illinois lack public defender police station units altogether.
III. Elected, Independent Civilian Oversight Committees
The Illinois General Assembly has to establish and maintain entirely elected, independent civilian oversight committees tasked with monitoring, investigating, and disciplining wrongdoing of members of police departments and state's attorney's offices across the state. A finding by a committee that a police officer or prosecutor engaged in official misconduct by violating his or her oath of office should automatically initiate a criminal prosecution by a special prosecutor.
A. Elected Civilian Oversight Committees of Police Departments
Elected, independent civilian oversight of police departments is crucial in holding police officers accountable for their actions. Typically, when a complaint is filed against a police officer, the officer's police department is the only entity investigating the complaint. A police department cannot be trusted to properly and impartially investigate a complaint against one of its own. Time and time again, police departments conduct internal investigations of wrongdoing of their officers and ultimately conclude the officer acted appropriately no matter how egregious his or her actions. Even when police departments do find wrongdoing by their officers, the punishment is often a "slap on the wrist." This occurs if police departments actually allow citizens to file complaints in the first place. Although citizens have a right to file complaints against police officers, it is not uncommon for police officers to turn citizens away from police departments or intimidate them into leaving without filing a complaint. Elected, independent civilian oversight committees of police departments must be created to protect the rights of Illinois citizens.
Although Chicago has a Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA) that was created in 2016 to oversee misconduct by the Chicago Police Department, its members and leaders are appointed by the mayor, not elected by the people (Masterson). As a result, COPA has been criticized for not holding police officers accountable for their actions (Mitchell). In fact, in 2019, nine Chicago aldermen were calling for an investigation of COPA because it "internalized bias in favor of protecting Chicago police officers who [were] accused of misconduct" (Mitchell). The aldermen questioned both the "effectiveness and leadership" of COPA Chief Administrator Sydney Roberts (Mitchell). Roberts was appointed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel (Mitchell). She spent most of her career in law enforcement and also served as Director of the Illinois Secretary of State Department of Police (Mitchell). Someone with a career in law enforcement who was appointed by a mayor, cannot be trusted as chief administrator of a police oversight committee to effectively discipline police officers accused of wrongdoing. Illinois must create independent civilian oversight committees whose leaders and members are fully elected by the people, not appointed by the mayor.
B. Elected Civilian Oversight Committees of State's Attorney's Offices
"The prosecutor has more control over life, liberty, and reputation than any other person in America. His discretion is tremendous . . . While the prosecutor at his best is one of the most beneficent forces in our society, when he acts from malice or other base motives, he is one of the worst" - former U.S. Attorney General Robert Jackson ("An Epidemic"). In the criminal justice system, prosecutors are the gatekeepers of justice. They have sole and unfettered discretion to decide whether or not to prosecute a crime and what crime to charge. They take oaths to essentially protect victims' rights and the rights of the accused. Prosecutors are forbidden from engaging in underhanded tactics to secure a conviction. They have a duty to uphold the Constitution and stand for justice—not a duty to convict. Although many prosecutors are honest and ethical, too many prosecutors are overzealous in charging and convicting defendants of crimes regardless of guilt to portray themselves as "tough on crime" or sadly because they simply want a "W" under their belts to advance their careers. In some cases, prosecutors mishandle or deliberately destroy evidence, knowingly use fabricated evidence against innocent defendants, withhold exculpatory evidence from defense attorneys, allow witnesses they know or should know are lying to testify, pressure defense witnesses not to testify, overcharge defendants, exaggerate the strength of evidence in plea negotiations, make inflammatory or improper statements to the media and juries, and refuse to report known prosecutorial misconduct ("An Epidemic").
On other occasions, prosecutors are accused of working with law enforcement to seize the assets of innocent people while threatening them with prosecution of a crime to essentially extort them into not challenging the seizure of their assets in exchange for not being prosecuted. In fact, law enforcement agencies seize more than $30 million a year from Illinoisans under state law and more than $36 million a year under federal law (Ruddell and Green). Assets seized under state law are used to fund state's attorney's offices and law enforcement agencies across the state (Ruddell and Green). These seizures have an inordinate effect on poor and minority communities (Ruddell). Those who contest the taking of their assets are often criminally prosecuted. In other instances, prosecutors are accused of pursuing convictions against defendants in retaliation for civil lawsuits filed against them or simply because they have biases against particular defendants. Although both police officers and prosecutors have immunity from civil lawsuits, police officers are occasionally prosecuted for their illegal misconduct, prosecutors, on the other hand, are rarely ever prosecuted. As a result, they consider themselves "untouchable." Elected, independent civilian oversight committees that have the power to discipline and initiate criminal prosecutions against prosecutors would help rein in their abusive practices.
IV. Funding of Exoneration Organizations
Illinois should finance well-respected organizations that advocate on behalf of innocent people facing charges or serving time in Illinois prisons. Exoneration organizations have limited resources; as a result, they cannot spend the time, money, and effort needed to adequately assist every innocent person. State funding would greatly enhance their ability to aid the unjustly accused. Although the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office has an “integrity unit” that seeks to overturn wrongful convictions in Cook County, other counties in Illinois have no such integrity units. Furthermore, although an integrity unit is an “independent” division of a state’s attorney’s office, it is still part of a state's attorney’s office and is thus susceptible to bias and not investigating claims of innocence as robustly as an independent organization. In fact, most integrity units are run by prosecutors who are essentially being asked to investigate their coworkers and bosses (Rice). Ohio Innocence Project Advisor Jim Locke puts it this way: “Conviction review units are totally contained within the office, and the prosecutor has total control over which case he’ll review and which ones he won’t. My personal opinion is that CRUs are politically motivated and self-serving. It’s the fox guarding the henhouse problem. They’ll cherry-pick the cases, overturn the obviously worst ones, thump their chests about all the good being done" (Rice). Exoneration organizations, on the other hand, are completely independent of state's attorney's offices and would therefore be more reliable and effective in investigating claims of innocence.
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Kinnan Ghali is the author of In Defense of the Insanity Defense. To learn more about Kinnan, visit https://e27.co/kinnan.ghali/